The Rise of the Moderate Incompatibilists

By Thomas Lambrecht –

When the Committee on a Way Forward was first established, I floated a way of categorizing various perspectives regarding United Methodism’s view of marriage and sexuality. In these categories, “traditional incompatibilists” and “progressive incompatibilists” could not live in a denomination that allowed practices they disagree with. On the other hand, “traditional compatibilists” and “progressive compatibilists,” while still holding their perspectives, could see themselves living in a denomination with the practices of both perspectives allowed.

There were those who later would emerge as “moderate compatibilists” who could live with either perspective as long as there was institutional unity.

Recent statements from the “moderate compatibilists” demonstrate that they may well have jumped categories – proving to be neither moderates nor compatibilists.

Good News president Rob Renfroe has described UM moderates as progressives who simply want to move more slowly to change the church. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, for example, has stated that he believes the controversy over same-sex marriage and gay clergy will be a non-issue in twenty years because the church will have become fully affirming of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, he has been willing to tolerate the presence of a theologically conservative voice within the UM Church, believing that it will eventually fade away.

Prior to General Conference 2019, many moderates declined to take a position on whether or not they themselves would perform same-sex marriages. However, the decision of GC 2019 to reaffirm the church’s long-standing teaching that all persons are of sacred worth and that, simultaneously, the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching appears to have radicalized many moderate leaders.

With uncharacteristic hyperbole in the aftermath of St. Louis, Hamilton wrote, “The policy … passed at General Conference treats gay and lesbian Christians as second class. ‘You are people of sacred worth, but so long as you wish to share your life and love with another, you are living in sin.’ … How long will our people continue to feel it is okay to treat their LGBTQ friends this way?” In an open meeting with members of his church and livestreamed on the internet, he said, “I cannot pastor a church in a denomination that treats LGBTQ persons as second class citizens.”

The Rev. Tom Berlin, a Virginia pastor who submitted the One Church Plan to General Conference, told his congregation, “Those of us who support marriage and job equity find the more stringent conditions of the Traditional Plan to be a movement away from the way of Christ.” He instituted a special committee in his church to come up with a six-month plan to be more intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ persons in the congregation.

Neither of these prominent moderate leaders have publicly said so, but their statements seem to imply their willingness to perform same-sex weddings if allowed by the denomination to do so. Of course, many other more progressive clergy have already signed statements indicating they are willing to perform same-sex weddings now in defiance of our church’s teaching.

The point is that many moderates no longer seem to be on the fence. They are no longer trying to hold a middle ground between theological conservatives and progressives. They appear to have joined the progressive advocacy for same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

At the same time that these moderates seem to have become radicalized, they have also become incompatibilists. Prior to St. Louis, they all waxed eloquently about how maintaining the unity of the church was the most important value. They asserted repeatedly that there is room in The United Methodist Church for people with all different views and practices regarding LGBTQ ministry.

Now, however, some of these same leaders have decided it may be time to leave the church or to work toward some form of separation. Hamilton wrote in his blog, “I’ve never seriously thought about leaving the UMC, until now.” He is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, “To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for [centrist churches].”

According to the Post article, the Rev. James Howell, a nationally known moderate leader and pastor of a 5,000-member church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has come to the same conclusion. “Right after the conference, people were saying, ‘Are we going to leave? Is there going to be a new denomination?’ Not today. There’s millions of people involved. You can’t form a new denomination by Thursday,” said. Howell. “I don’t know anybody who thinks we can continue to stay together with what we have now. I was someone who dreamed of that for a long time…. It’s sad, but it’s just not viable.”

“We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” declared North Georgia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson in the Post article.

Compatibilists in the past have given the impression that they can get along with a variety of perspectives and practices. It appears that this only holds true if progressive practices are allowed. In other words, they are happy to stay in one church with different viewpoints as long as they get to do what they want to do. If the church says no, as it did in St. Louis, they become an incompatibilist and cannot remain in the church.

This is actually an encouraging development, as it means that at least some progressives and moderates are coming to the conclusion that we have irreconcilable differences in the church that make it impossible for both groups to live together in one structural body.

It was striking to read both Hamilton and Berlin say that many of their people felt that the way the church or traditional delegates characterized LGBTQ persons was hurtful or offensive. I do not recall any comments made by traditional delegates at General Conference that maligned the character of LGBTQ persons. What this means is that the traditional message that sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful is a message that a significant group in the church finds hurtful and offensive. At the same time, it certainly is hurtful and offensive for traditionalists to be called hateful, bigoted, and backward.

If the basic message of each perspective is that harmful to those of a different perspective, how is it the best decision to stay together in one church? It appears that more moderates and progressives may be coming to the same realization. Our only hope of not repeating the battle of St. Louis in Minneapolis is to come to a negotiated agreement on separate ways forward. Hopefully, enough leaders across the theological spectrum will come to that realization to work together toward a positive future for Methodism in America and around the world.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.




  1. Not all moderates went progressive. While I am a traditionalist, I hoped that the denomination would stay together and the Holy Spirit would lead the progressives to the side of truth. I was willing to live with the battle every four years at General Conference in the hopes that someday we would unify under traditional Christian beliefs. I knew that some of our ministers were breaking the rules but even though it went against my traditionalist beliefs I was willing to stick it out with the UMC hoping that things would change. This changed with the open disobedience to the discipline and the election of Karen Oliveto. Those actions forced me from the middle to the hard right. I am now firmly a traditional incompatibilist, forced there by the disobedience of this on the left. I will not be part of a denomination that officially endorses sin. I am still disturbed that many of my traditional brethren focus too much on one sin, while ignoring others, but the left pushed me into taking sides, and I am like so many others now firmly entrenched on my side.

  2. This issue is authority. Progressives seem to have a disdain for objective authority. When a person becomes overly impressed with his own self-developed insight and education, he begins to think that everyone else would surely understand his great wisdom. Surely everyone could see how irrelevant the objective standard is compared to their own great “truth.” The Bible and the US Constitution are two sources of authority I first think of whose messages are hidden because of the arrogance of those progressives who see themselves as superior to those standards.

  3. Bill Fitzgerrel says

    I always appreciate Tom and the other conservative leaders who articulate the issues so well. I do hope that a decisive proposal for amicable separation will be presented at GC 2020. I realize there are some real complexities to be sorted through, such as what to do about the big “Boards”–Global Ministries, Discipleship, etc. Very likely any proposal would be deemed “unconstitutional” by the Judicial Council and everyone would have to just live with that. Assuming this thing actually happens, I would like a two year waiting period and during that time the two new entities would each be allowed to send to every church some sort of summary of their vision and maybe a set of answers to FAQ’s. Maybe there would be a gentlemen’s agreement not to slam the other side. This would help lay persons decide what they want to do. For sure, a major effort needs to take place to help the two sides go their separate ways and end the toxicity.

  4. The 2019 General Conference not only knocked the fence riders off the fence, it knocked the fence down. The so called moderates were progressives all along, just slower moving with the same progressive agenda of ultimately liberalizing the entire denomination. There is no middle ground in this schism, never was. The traditionalists were poised to exit the church had the one church plan passed. Now that the tables are turned, the progressives seem to have entered a state of incoherence and bedlam while calling for a variety of actions. But, as perhaps a sign for a step forward, they are finally mentioning separation. The honorable thing with integrity for them to do, however, would be to do what the traditionalists had planned to do, go and form a new denomination. But, there’ another problem with that, traditionalists and progressives have entirely different understandings of honor and integrity. Bottom line, separation is now inevitable, either a peaceful one or an ugly one. And, every Methodist will have to decide between the traditional church, the present church, a progressive church, yet to be determined, or make no choice between the two by leaving.

  5. Jim Wolfgang says

    I always benefit reading Tom’s articles and the comments that follow. Terry’s comment led me to reflect upon the need for humility in my own thinking. I believe we need to remember the U.M.C. we love and thus feel so strongly about concerning the damage done by those who disregard our beliefs and accountability is worth the patience and dedication required to “right the ship”. We are dealing with sin, the sin of those who disregard their vows in membership and acceptance of their privilege as clergy and leadership as shepherds of the flock. Until we make the necessary changes in our Discipline to insure accountability let us remember that those who flagrantly break their vows of covenant to members of the church and to our Lord, and approve of a lifestyle incompatable with Christian life and teaching, are answerable to the Highest Authority. The problems we face are the sin problem, so let us remember this is a problem much bigger than we are but “greater is He who is with us than the one who is in the world”. We are called upon to be faithful, patient, and commited to Christ and to this great church and movement of “the people called Methodist” which belongs to Christ. Don’t abandon the ship while it can yet be saved, repair the damage and make the course corrections which time and resolve will require.

  6. I never could figure out what the centrist position was between the two competing views on marriage. If nothing else GC 2019 is forcing people to choose. I welcome the clarity.

  7. Tom, as usual you have explained well the incompatibility coming from the progressive side of UM Bishops, Pastors and Laity. Here in North Carolina there is a state wide open letter to LGBTQ+ siblings and their allies. Letter titles vary depending on the region of the state, but the contents are the same. “Sacred Witness WNC: An Open Letter from Pastors and Laity in the WNCC UMC” has at last count some 801 names pledging “to right the wrong which would be done to others through the implementation of the Traditional Plan.” One of those names is the Rev. James Howell.

    Progressives are indeed demonstrating they have no tolerance for any perspective that is not in total agreement with their views. But then, judging from their actions during and since GC 2019, that is not surprising.

    • Richard,
      Thank you for that letter title, I just looked up the signatures to see if pastors in churches I attend were on the list.
      Is it maligning the character of the alphabet people and progressives if you say that what they seem to find “hurtful” is that they cannot get the imprimatur of the words Methodist and Christian excusing the lifestyle – so there is no sin to confess, and no grace, transformation, redemption, repentance, or cross required? I think of the first two chapters of 1 John.
      I just found this website and greatly enjoyed the articles and comments. It gives me big picture that I don’t think I could glean from news reports.

  8. It is about time. Let the great separation begin in earnest. The so-called progressives by their very identity, practice, and ideology will disappear like the morning mist after the sunrise. Thanks Tom for another insightful article!

  9. Gary Bebop says

    To ensure that an (honorable) separation occurs, not a rout, Traditionalists must set forth strong objections to the Progressive narrative being vaunted by its militant operatives. These objections must come from a cohesive and Spirit-filled evangelical-orthodox leadership that will not scatter in disarray and self-interest.

  10. As always Tom has wonderful insights and helps us think through all the emotion. There is a piece of this puzzle that I have not seen addressed and that is the seminaries. Many Methodist seminaries have become breeding grounds for liberal thought, much like the universities they are attached to. Like many who have only worried about their own safety, these tenured professors will have to make a decision to stay or go. And the UMC will need to better enforce the curriculum of those who stay.

    • Robert, you’re right – the seminaries haven’t been discussed much “officially.” I’ve mentioned them in a few comments, and here’s my take: you are correct about the professors and their theologically liberal / progressive position… I think when it’s all said and done, whatever orthodox / traditional Methodist denomination exists after the separation, we’re only going to need about three seminaries (along with Asbury) to train future clergy, especially in light of online education options and what future clergy training will look like. Most of our current crop (13 minu 3 equals 10) could be closed and the facilities sold, unless we can think of some undergrad options that we as a renewed denomination want to explore to use those facilities. But what do I know – better minds than mine (like Billy Abraham, David Watson and Maxie Dunnam) are thinking about these issues.

  11. Ann Jones says

    Things are going to get more and more contentious from what I read in our local papers and online church websites:,34

    The Lansing City Pulse Magazine stated…..
    “Mark T. was the first openly gay Methodist pastor appointed in Michigan. The Methodist Book of Discipline allows the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers, so long as they are not in a relationship and remain celibate.”

    So what good is it if a gay or lesbian pastor is celibate and not in a gay relationship if they are still working and fighting against the Book of Discipline? Promoting the LGBTQ lifestyle for their church members as being OK with God and not against scripture?

    The countdown is on as to WHEN the UMC will split. Not IF….in my opinion.

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